Yesterday was Armistice day. It is the day that we remember those that fell in service of our country. The First World War marked a break from the wars of the 19th Century as defensive technology prevented mobility on the battlefield and also allowed rapid concentrations of forces to head off an offensive, causing land battles to last for months when in the 19th Century they had usually lasted a day after having consuming all the resources available within a few hours’ march from the fighting. The unbroken trench lines from Switzerland to the sea prevented flanking manoeuvres and the only kind of fighting possible was head-on confrontation. Casualties were huge as generals fed more and more men into developing battles. The war became a conflict of entire populations whose resources were mobilised to fight. The war was a national effort and it is right we remember those who gave the ultimate sacrifice at the front.
However, as the centenary of the Armistice approaches, I am getting concerned that the ‘Blackadder’ version of the History of World War I has yet to be robustly challenged. This is the view, popularised by Alan Clark in the 1960s, of incompetent aristocratic generals herding working-class soldiers to leaden doom in pointless and inconclusive attacks. The consequence of this is that the actual 1918 Armistice and the events leading up to it are ignored. The popular view is of a stalemate of trench warfare until the sudden end of the war on November 11.
This is simply not true.
By 1918, German collapse was a near certainty as the effects of British-led blockade starved civilians at home and the depletion of Germany’s war power at the front due to a series of Allied offensives were leading to a defeat that its defensive strategy could not prevent, despite its victory over Russia, which was ironically Germany’s prime war objective in 1914. The Ludendorff offensives, starting in March 1918, were a consequence of this inevitability; a last-ditch attack with the last remnants of the best soldiers to force a decision by knocking the British Empire out of the ground fighting. The offensive was a close-run thing, but it failed. More importantly it left Germany with salients that it could not defend.
On August 8, British Empire forces initiated the Battle of Amiens. This day was described as the ‘Black Day of the German Army’ by Ludendorff, Germany’s de facto military ruler at the time. It was a meticulously-planned feat of combined arms that led to a 100-day period of non-stop Allied military victory. The Germans were in permanent retreat. Its leaders could only see defeat and collapse as the outcome.
This is the context that led to Germany starting negotiations with America on the basis of Woodrow Wilson’s 14 Points in October 1918. During these negotiations, the USA stated that they would seek Germany’s unconditional surrender unless executive power was stripped from the Kaiser’s appointed cronies and distributed to the elected parliament and a government made up from its members. Had this not been done, then the terms for Germany to exit the war would have been identical to those of the 1943 Casablanca conference to their Nazi successors. The first foreign soldiers to storm the Reichstag would have been British ones in 1919, not Soviet ones in 1945.
The series of unstoppable defeats on land caused the Imperial Navy of Germany to decide unilaterally to sail its High Seas Fleet into a final battle with the British Grand Fleet, a kind of Jutland Mk.II, but with no orders to preserve the fleet by avoiding risk as had been given to Sheer at Jutland. This provoked mutiny in the fleet when it was determined by sailors, which led to revolution on Germany and the abdication and exile of the Kaiser when he was told that his army would not support him at its head to suppress the uprising.
The Armistice was a one-sided affair, with Germany being stripped of the ability to resume war and having its territory west of the Rhine demilitarised and occupied.
The war was not a stalemate leading to a draw when both sides were exhausted. Germany was militarily defeated in the field of battle. The Armies of the British Empire had a leading role in this, employing not the abilities of the gifted amateur, but hard-won professional and technical skill built up during four years of non-stop combat in combined arms warfare using technology developed during the struggle, most notably the tank. It was British forces that pioneered mobile ‘blitzkrieg’ tactics.
At sea, Germany’s fleet had already been forcibly removed from the oceans of the world by the Royal Navy and the survivors were bottled up in harbour or the Baltic as it faced the permanent threat of the Grand Fleet of the British Empire from across the North Sea. The neutering of its surface fleet and the degrading of its army at the Somme by predominantly British forces had forced Germany to employ unrestricted submarine warfare to starve Britain into submission, a diplomatic fiasco that alienated America with further botched diplomacy bringing her in to the fighting onto the Allies’ side. Germany mounted no offensives in the West during 1917, but had to endure Anglo-French attacks during the year. The Spring 1918 offensive was a desperate last throw of the dice before national collapse.
To look to German collapse in 1918 being due to revolution is to perpetuate the Nazi myth of the so-called ‘stab-in-the-back’, where ‘valiant’ German soldiers were betrayed by malcontents at home. The Allies were close to seizing Germany’s lateral railway line that was its vital supply channel. Without this, the army would have completely collapsed for want of supplies. According to the biography of the Kaiser’s heir, also called Wilhelm, the soldiers were fighting while dressed in rags already.
British victory in World War I was due to our forces successfully imposing their will on their opponents in the European field of battle by a well-trained and innovative force of arms that broke the stalemate on land and led to the resumption of mobile warfare, and that this resulted in the indisputable military defeat of Imperial Germany.
Yesterday, we marked the sacrifice and loss of a generation of men who, had they lived peaceful lives, would have been great-grandfathers by now and interred in graves across this country instead of – if their bodies had been found and identified – lying in ranks marked by uniform headstones, differentiated only by their inscriptions: the national emblem or regimental badge, rank, name, unit, date of death and age of each casualty is inscribed above an appropriate religious symbol and a more personal dedication chosen by relatives. Had they lived, they would have been at the peak of a pyramid of generations, men and women, boys and girls whose chance of existence was snuffed out due to an artillery shell or machine-gun bullet or the dozens of other ways the Flanders killing grounds could do their lethal work.
To try to understand the loss to this country and the world here are just two examples of those that survived. J R R Tolkien fought in the trenches. Had he fallen, the Lord of the Rings would never have been written. Harold Macmillan was wounded in the fighting. He would never have gone on to become Prime Minister had he not survived. Consider how many of their comrades with equal or superior talent fell in the mass fighting. The loss to the enrichment of human existence is immeasurable.
But this was a war that was worth fighting. It was not a clash of capitalist nations with plutocrats sending their underlings to do the dirty work. Such a description suggests that the opposing belligerents were all the same. This is not so. Despite there being universal male suffrage in Germany, its government did not answer to the elected assembly, but only to the Supreme Warlord, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who supported a militarist policy and elevated his army to be served by the nation instead of the reverse. Germany had clear expansionist ambitions and tried to negotiate with Britain to remain neutral in any war by promising only to seize France’s colonies after they had crushed it. However their ultimate aims can be inferred from the terms given to Romania and Russia in the East, where these countries had to hand over territory and gold in return for a German-dictated peace. There is strong evidence that Germany’s ambitions after 1914 were not dissimilar to those of a quarter of a century later. In the West, Belgium and Holland would have become vassal states. The Imperial Navy would have been stationed in Zeebrugge instead of Kiel. The ‘Thousand-Year-Reich’ would have started twenty-five years earlier.
At present, the victory of 1918 appears forgotten and is somewhat overshadowed by its human cost and the fact that the peace was shattered a generation later. But this was not a futile victory, but a decisive one against an expansionist autocratic military dictatorship and deserves not to be hidden out of misplaced shame or for fear of irritating modern German politicians whose modern freedoms were delivered a generation later only by force of Allied arms. We should honour the dead, but also thank them for delivering us a decisive victory. Their loss was worthwhile.